Competitive eating

Words: Daisy Stenham   Illustration by Ellis Van Der Does

Competitive eating

The competitive sport of speed eating


What on earth compels the sober of mind to grease up their stomachs, risk oesophageal inflammation, and speed eat cockroaches, all in the name of competitive sport?
Is this frat boy lunacy writ large, or the toenail clippings of American trash cable, desperately looking to spike the ailing heartbeat of low-cal entertainment?
Well, if one looks past the insalubrious footage of regurgitated hotdogs falling out of contestants’ mouths to think objectively, it seems like this cultural phenomena of competitive eating operates not so differently to any other extreme sport. Yes, it’s ostensibly an odd ritual to engage in, but one shouldn’t underestimate the popularity (huge) or cultural heritage (rich).
The roots of competitive eating can be traced back thousands of years to ancient myths. A collection of 13th century Norse myths references an eating contest between the god Loki and his servant.
Fast forward a couple of centuries and it’s (no surprise here) America in which competitive eating has really flourished. As the New World became more established, competitive eating signified a way to celebrate a successful harvest. Pie-eating contests were prevalent among town fairs and church picnics, oyster-eating and crawfish, the coastal equivalent.
In 1916 four immigrants made history when they challenged each other, in the name of patriotism, to a competitive hot dog eating competition outside Nathan’s Hot Dog Stall on Coney Island. Thirteen dogs later the Irishman won, and thus the annual Nathan’s Fourth of July hot dog eating contest was born – otherwise known as the most famous competition in the global competitive eating world. So revered, the competition has only been cancelled twice since, and that was during the the Second World War – quite understandable.
But it wasn’t until the mid-nineties (with a significant marketing push by brothers George and Richard Shea) that Nathan’s was jettisoned into the global spotlight and became the multi million dollar industry that it is today. The brothers were responsible for transforming competitive eating into a league, literally founding the International Federation of Competitive Eating, later renamed Major League Eating.
In Japan in the nineties, competitive eating was also booming, prompting the birth of competitive eating cooking shows (such as Iron Chef in ’93) which was imported to the States six years later.
The introduction of a league and the 2005 broadcast deal with ESPN meant Nathan’s exploded into the media spotlight and competitive eating was canonised in popular cultural as a professional sport – one that has grown in popularity in the last fifteen years. Today Nathan’s hosts competitions all over the world for hundreds of thousands of pounds of prize money.
In today’s world, the competitive eating circuit offers a smorgasbord of delights. Anything and everything goes. From the more pedestrian: gyoza, tacos, pizza, buffalo wings, bratwurst, and dumplings. To the more obscure: crocodile eggs in Thailand, stinging nettle leaves in Dorset, raw onions in Georgia, black caviar speed-eating in Moscow nightclubs, to arguably the weirdest, the ‘midnight madness’ bug-eating contest in Florida - where a 32 year-old-man died from asphyxia after he covered his mouth so the numerous cockroaches couldn’t escape. 
So how do they all do it? Well for us regular eaters, the stomach feels full after consuming around a litre or a litre and half of food. Competitive eaters learn to stretch their stomach by eating vast amounts of low-calorie foods and liquids (water, diet drinks, watermelon). Champion Don Lerman’s method was downing a gallon of water each morning to relax his lower esophageal sphincter.
But not all competitive eating comes down to volume of food consumed in minimum time. Competitions take other shapes, such as how much heat or spice the contestants can handle, like the annual Kismot curry competition in Edinburgh (so fiery that contestants are screened for potential heath risks in advance and the British Red Cross are on hand).
Or, of a different tone, the annual Iowa erotic corn dog contest, ever reaffirming the maximum that, if you look hard enough, there is something out there for everyone. 
Now, one could not rhapsodise on the history of competitive eating without mentioning heavy weight champion-come-rock star Takeru Kobayashi. A Nagano resident, Kobayashi is a household name in competitive eating. This is the man who once ate fifty-seven cow brains in less time than it takes to boil a bag of penne. In 2001 he made competitive eating history, casually doubling Nathan’s previously held record by eating fifty hotdogs in twelve minutes.
Kobayashi’s approach was to break the hot dogs into two pieces, using one hand to put them in his mouth and the other to soak the bun in water, making it easier to swallow almost 8lb of hot dogs – a technique he calls the Solomon Method. He also employs the “Kobayashi Shake”, his famous body wiggle to push the food down quickly. Kobayashi claims that his strategy is more mental than anything else.
An episode of Freaknonomics Radio explains:
“Here’s what the other competitive eaters were asking themselves: How could I fit more hot dogs in my stomach? Kobi asked a different question: How can I make one hot dog easier to eat?”

The forty-year old, who first entered a competitive eating contest in college, currently holds eight Guinness Records for his efforts in eating hot dogs, meatballs, Twinkies, tacos, hamburgers, pizza, ice cream and pasta.


Needless to say, it is a prerequisite of any competitive eating ritual to reside in a culture where food is abundant. Competitive eating elevates food to a spectacle, a performance, a matter of entertainment – a game which only those privy to surplus food can partake in.


And so it is no surprise that one of the most popular countries for competitive eating is America, a culture where excess, abundance and competition is woven into the very fabric of its free market capitalism.


Since antiquity, food, particularly an abundance of it, has been used as a signifier for status, wealth, opulence; both a social and political currency. So the culture of consumption (which defines competitive eating) is as old as culture itself. But what makes specifics of competitive eating unique (from the general consumption of goods) is the theatre of it, the spectacle, the subversion.


As Columbia Sociology professor Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson puts it, competitive eating is “inherently transgressive”. Competitive eating rejects the accepted social norms of ‘civil society’ on how we eat. It’s weird and unusual, bodily, repulsive – and therefore kryptonite for spectators.


Ferguson makes an interesting point. Perhaps competitive eating is, like any other extreme sport, born from a desire to stand out against the crowd. She recalls the 19th century sociologist Georg Simmel who believed that one of the biggest problems in modern society was maintaining autonomy and individuality against burgeoning social forces.


“To stand out in a society where quantity determines quality, where the blasé attitude creates a culture of indifference, the individual resorts to more and more extreme, and specialised, behaviour.”

Competitive eating feeds on our need for entertainment, both for the spectator and the contestant. Perhaps in today’s hyper-connected and homogenised world, our endless access to entertainment has meant (in Simmel’s terms) that we are resorting to even more extreme and specialised behaviour in order to stand out from the mainstream. To this end, competitive eating, at a local and global level, might just continue to eat its way into becoming one of the world’s most loved extreme sports.



 A brief footnote on health risks. Side effects of competitive eating include: oesophageal inflammation, stomach rupturing and choking. Many fatalities have occurred over the years as is not so surprising considering choking is the fourth leading cause of unintentional death injury in the world.